On February 25, President Biden authorized an airstrike targeting Iranian-linked militias in eastern Syria. His decision came in response to the recent spate of at least three rocket attacks which have targeted U.S. equities in Iraq, one of which killed a non-U.S. contractor and wounded nine additional people, including five Americans. The move drew a mixed reaction in Congress, as both Democrats and Republicans split ranks to alternately support and condemn the move, highlighting the trans-partisan nature of crucial foreign policy debates.
The Strike and its Rationale
Two days after the strike, Biden wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President pro tempore of the Senate Patrick Leahy, highlighting the international legitimacy of the move and claiming that “the United States took this action pursuant to the United States’ inherent right of self-defense as reflected in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.”
For its part, the Pentagon’s after-action statement took special care to note that the strike was carried out "in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq," and was intended to send “an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel.” At the same time, the statement went on to stress that “we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq."
The Left Reacts
Despite the ostensible pull of party loyalty, and the traditional impulse to give a new President a “honeymoon” period, several Democrats of the party’s progressive wing were sharply critical of the Biden administration. Representative Ilhan Omar expressed last Friday her abiding concerns about the White House’s "legal rationale" for launching airstrikes in Syria without first seeking congressional approval. As she put it, "We in Congress have congressional oversight in engaging in war and we haven’t been briefed yet and we have not authorized war in Syria.”
The most powerful progressive voice in Congress, Senator Sanders, largely echoed these concerns: “I am very concerned by last night’s strike by U.S. forces in Syria. The president has the responsibility to keep Americans safe, but for too long administrations of both parties have interpreted their authorities in an extremely expansive way to continue war. This must end.”
Progressive Rep. Barbara Lee, famed for being the only lawmaker who voted against the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force in the days following 9/11, said that the Syria strike highlights the need to remove old war powers from the books and return to nuclear talks with Iran. "The strike in Syria underscores the urgent need to get back to the table with Iran and revive the JCPOA... It also underscores the urgent need to repeal the blank check for endless wars — the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs — which are now almost 20 years old."
Republicans Offer Rare Praise for White House
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Representative Michael McCaul lauded the administration’s move: "I called for the administration to respond to the recent attacks on U.S. and coalition targets, and I commend them for doing just that. Responses like this are a necessary deterrent and remind #Iran, its proxies, and our adversaries around the world that attacks on U.S. interests will not be tolerated. I thank @POTUS and our service members for protecting Americans overseas.”
The Senate GOP evinced a similar dynamic. Senator Marco Rubio observed that “Iranian backed militias have launched three attacks against Americans in the last two weeks. The strikes ordered by [President Biden] against these militias tonight were targeted, proportional and necessary.” Senator Graham, who in recent years has assumed the role of intermediary between various elements of the GOP, similarly endorsed the strikes, saying that he “appreciate[s] Biden Administration striking Iranian-backed militia groups in Syria who’ve been pushing attacks against American forces in Iraq and other locations. It is imperative that our enemies know that attacking Americans comes at a cost.”
These opinions were not unanimous, however. In a useful reminder that foreign policy can cut across party lines, first term conservative stalwart Congresswoman Nancy Mace tweeted, “I strongly oppose @POTUS meddling in Syria. I can think of better ways to ensure no one can strike our US forces in Iraq. Stop the endless wars.”